By Thanyarat Doksone
BANGKOK (AP) – Thai Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra fought a two-front political war Tuesday, Nov. 26, fending off attacks during a parliamentary no-confidence debate while protesters besieged and occupied several ministries in their attempt to topple her from power.
Protest leaders threatened to extend the battlefield to government offices in provincial areas, while police issued an arrest warrant for protest leader Suthep Thaugsuban, a former opposition lawmaker who led the storming of the Finance Ministry a day earlier.
“It feels like a coup may be imminent, and we’ve seen tons of little encounters go down between the two groups,” said Twisp, Wash. resident Laura Love, who just happened to be vacationing in Thailand when the protests broke out. Love, a singer/songwriter formerly from Seattle, became fascinated by the events and has been attending the rallies daily at Democracy Monument. Love sent dispatches by e-mail to Northwest Asian Weekly as events occurred.
The situation is complex, said Love, who interviewed protesters in the crowd as well as many of the protest leaders. “Everyone we talk to is admits to having very close friends and family on both sides, so it is very touchy.”
A day earlier, Love reported Thaugsuban began calling for an escalation to the “major battle,” declaring the struggle to end Yingluck’s government would be “over in three days.”
Police said Suthep would not be arrested at the rally as part of a pledge to avoid clashes with demonstrators.
“They’re stringing razor wire all over the government buildings,” said Love, “and the Pheu Thai Red Shirts are starting to gather in bigger numbers, too.”
Sunday’s rally was “by far the largest public gathering I have ever seen in my entire life,” reported Love, adding the Democrat Party had forecasted as many as a million people would attend.
“I can easily believe there were indeed that many in attendance,” she said. The same was reported by local Thais to Westerners abroad, despite Western media reports that put the number at only 100,000.
Love said there were so many people camped at Democracy Monument that they “have had to abandon all physical comforts as the crowds are so massive that space is at a premium, and they lie stretched out for blocks and blocks on plastic sheeting without pillows or many other creature comforts. Garbage is piling up in horrific proportions along storefronts and the sidewalk is sticky wet with spilled food and drinks.”
Tuesday’s demonstrators surrounded the Interior Ministry and then cut electricity and water to pressure people inside to leave. Security personnel locked themselves behind the ministry’s gates, with employees still inside.
“The anger and tension and absolute commitment of Democrat Party members of parliament to unseat the current Prime Minister is palpable,” Love wrote, “and a major political clash seems imminent between the two, even though they assure us otherwise.”
Yellow Shirt protesters say they want Yingluck, who took office in 2011, to step down amid claims her government is controlled by her brother, former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who was ousted in a military coup in 2006. He has lived in self-imposed exile for the past five years to avoid a two-year prison sentence on a corruption conviction.
“One older woman who spoke in English at [Sunday’s] rally said of Yingluck Shinawatra’s brain, “On the left side, nothing is right — and on the right side, there is nothing left,” reported Love. “This brought a wave of cheers and flag-waving from the enormous crowd that stretched literally for miles.”
What started a month ago as a campaign against a political amnesty bill has morphed into a wider anti-government movement. Protest leaders now say their ultimate goal is to uproot the Shinawatra network from Thai politics, with no explanation of what that means.
“Tomorrow there will be a nationwide movement,” Akanat Promphan, a protest spokesman, told reporters inside the emptied ministry. He said the aim is to paralyze government operations by seizing offices and state agencies so they cannot be “used as a mechanism for the Thaksin regime.”
Separately on Tuesday, the opposition Democrat Party launched a parliamentary no-confidence debate against Yingluck. They accused her administration of corruption and called her an incompetent puppet whose brother pulled the strings. The vote has no chance of unseating Yingluck as her ruling Pheu Thai party controls the House of Representatives.
Yingluck called for calm and offered to negotiate with protest leaders.
“If we can talk, I believe the country will return to normal,” she said.
Yingluck has vowed not to use violence to stop the protests but expanded special security laws late Monday to cover the entire capital. The Internal Security Act was already in place for three districts of Bangkok since August, when there were early signs of political unrest. It authorizes officials to impose curfews, seal off roads, restrict access to buildings and ban the use of electronic devices in designated areas.
In the nearby tourist area of Khaosan Road, Love said life seems to be going on as normal. “All these gobs and throngs of tourists from all over the world are completely unaware of the trouble that is brewing a few blocks away,” she said. “All of the hotel staffs have been trying to steer us away from the protests, and iterate and reiterate that ‘there will be no problems and no violence and all tourists are safe.’ Many have even told us that they can ‘guarantee us 100 percent’ that no violence will occur.”
The protesters’ takeover of government offices has drawn criticism from the United States and the European Union, which issued a statement on Tuesday calling upon “all concerned to avoid escalation and to resolve differences through peaceful means.” (end)
Associated Press writers Jocelyn Gecker and Grant Peck contributed to this report.
Northwest Asian Weekly writer Sue Misao also contributed to this report.